“Why does God willingly allow tragedy to befall good people?” is one of the most difficult and challenging questions humanity is forced to grapple with! I mean it’s one thing when evil people experience tragedy (we hardly batted an eye when video surfaced of Gaddafi being executed in the streets of Libya or when Saddam Hussein was hung for his crimes against humanity), but it’s entirely another thing when tragedy strikes the innocent!
What can be said when a child dies a brutal death or a mother of five is diagnosed with untreatable cancer? How can we find any rational reason to explain the mass shootings at churches or schools or even the pervasive killing of Christians across the Middle East?
It would seem when atrocities happen to innocent people because we can’t rationalize the acts themselves, our culture (as a form of national distraction) immediately begins to discuss what we can do to stop these events from ever taking place again. It’s almost as though we need to create a positive result in order to satisfy our need for purpose.
And while there are several ways one can approach this multifaceted question, I can say with complete certainty that one of the reasons God allows such tragedy to befall good people boils down to the simple fact the way good people handle tragedy ends up challenging many of our incorrect, societal perceptions concerning God!
This morning we’re going to dive right into the middle of a story recorded for us in Acts 27 and 28. As such, before we get to our text and unpack this thought, it would be helpful to give you some of the larger context as to what’s happening… Even though the Apostle Paul is in the very center of God’s will and he’s been equipped with promises from Jesus he’d testify in Rome, the journey has not been “smooth sailing.”
Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem a few years earlier and decided to appeal his case to be heard before Emperor Nero — a right bestowed to all Roman citizens. After a lengthy stay in Caesarea, Paul is placed into the custody of a centurion of the Augustan Regiment named Julius and he begins his journey by sea to the capital city.
Almost from the beginning, the winds were contrary and the voyage difficult. After jumping from island to island, Paul recommended they port for the winter in the city of Fair Havens. Tragically, Julius and the shipmasters should have listened to Paul’s counsel because they end up caught in a wicked storm that has spanned the greater part of two weeks.
As we will see though Paul was bound for Rome God had a stop along the journey not a part of the original manifest. For the Apostle and his traveling companions, this tempest would be a “Directive Storm” used by God to orchestrate events in order to place His man exactly where He wanted him to be in order to accomplish His sovereign purposes!
Acts 27:15-26, “So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Clauda, we secured the skiff with difficulty. When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven. And because we were exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day they lightened the ship.
On the third day we threw the ship's tackle overboard with our own hands. Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up. But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, ‘Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.
For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. However, we must run aground on a certain island.”
Acts 27:27-29, “Now when the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven up and down in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land. And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little farther, they took soundings again and found it to be fifteen fathoms. Then, fearing lest we should run aground on the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come.”
Isn’t it interesting “fearing lest they should run aground” everyone on this ship “prayed?” In 1942, serving as a U.S. military chaplain during the Battle of Bataan (one of the bloodiest campaigns in the South Pacific), Reverend William Cummings famously told his men that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” In the end, he would die with the men he served.
There is something about the threat of death that forces men to consider what we’d rather ignore… Eternity and the afterlife. I am of the opinion that in His great love for us there are times when God allows crisis into our lives for such a purpose… To drive us to our knees.
Acts 27:30-32, “As the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, when they had let down the skiff into the sea, under pretense of putting out anchors from the prow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.’ Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the skiff and let it fall off.”
I find this development fascinating… Everyone knows the ship is approaching land — which in many ways confirms exactly what Paul said would happen. Additionally, though Paul has made it clear the ship will sink, he’s promised that there will be no loss of life. And yet, as everyone is praying for daybreak, the sailors — operating “under pretense of putting out anchors from the prow” — are in actuality “seeking to escape from the ship.”
Recognizing the plan afoot, Paul warns Julius that the promise of survival would come to naught “unless these men stay in the ship.” Heeding Paul’s warning, Julius immediately commands the “soldier to cut away the ropes of the skiff and let it fall” into the sea.
Herein lies an important component to the promises of God (and really all promises) you would be wise to consider… Promises are only worth something to those who believe them! God had promised there would be no loss of life, but if these men took matters into their own hands and willfully acted in disbelief the promises of God would be nullified.
Christian… God has made you unshakable promises but never forget those promises are only good if you believe and embrace them. Will you “believe God?” Will you trust Him and allow Him the time to make good on the promises He’s made in His Word or in an act of disbelief will you pridefully nullify those promises by taking matters into your own hands?
Acts 27:33-37, “And as day was about to dawn, Paul implored them all to take food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day you have waited and continued without food, and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you.’
And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat. Then they were all encouraged, and also took food themselves. And in all we were two hundred and seventy-six persons on the ship.”
Imagine this scene of Paul “taking bread and giving thanks to God in the presence of them all.” Talk about being a witness in the midst of the storm! Paul’s faith in God’s promises was so real he was able to “give thanks to God” even before they were standing on dry land. Luke records that the result of Paul’s faith and his thanksgiving was that “they were all encouraged and took food.” Note: This included even the sailors who’d tried to escape.
Acts 27:38-41, “So when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship and threw out the wheat into the sea. When it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible. And they let go the anchors and left them in the sea, meanwhile loosing the rudder ropes; and they hoisted the mainsail to the wind and made for shore. But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves.”
Knowing the ship and cargo would be lost, the crew decides to “lighten the ship” by “throwing the wheat into the sea” with the plan that they’d “run the ship” as close to land as possible. Luke then says they “let go of the anchors, loosed the rudder ropes, hoisted the mainsail, and made for shore.” However, “the ship ran aground” with the “prow stuck fast and immovable” which resulted in the “stern being broken up by the violence of the waves.”
Acts 27:42-44, “And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, and the rest, some on boards and some on parts of the ship. And so it was that they all escaped safely to land.”
Seeing that everyone on board would be forced to make a swim for shore, the soldiers “plan to kill the prisoners lest any of them should swim away and escape.” In the first century, the penalty for allowing a prisoner to escape custody was that the soldier responsible would be forced to take the prisoner's place and assume the penalty of his crimes.
“But Julius, wanting to save Paul,” presented a solution to the understandable fear of these soldiers. We read that he “commanded that those who could swim get to land first” with those who couldn’t using “boards and parts of the ship” as flotation devices.
Since it was required that every Roman soldier be able to swim is it likely that Julius was in actuality commanding the soldiers to dive in first with the prisoners following behind. Logically, this made sense as such a strategy would minimize the likelihood of escape.
Acts 28:1-2, “Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold.”
It’s an amazing thing that this ship — navigated by nothing other than the natural forces of this incredible storm — found itself running aground on the tiny island of Malta (which is 17 miles wide and 9 miles long). Note: The location is now called “St. Paul’s Bay.”
As we’re about to see while there may have been no hand of man on the rudder of this ship for the last few weeks the hand of God was firmly at the wheel. Nothing was happening outside His sovereign control or beyond His divine purposes.
Acts 28:3-6, “But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.’ But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.
However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
Imagine this scene… Paul has just survived this storm and the shipwreck that followed. He’s now demonstrating a servant's heart by “gathering sticks for the fire” when “a viper came out because of the heat… and fastened onto his hand!” What’s up with this!?
The first thing I want to point out is that “the natives saw” what had just happened to Paul. Though Paul had been busy serving the Lord, he’s been bitten by a venomous viper! Keep in mind, serving Jesus and doing the right things doesn’t guarantee you won’t get bit!
Then notice what the natives immediately feel compelled to do… Tragedy struck and in the exact same manner as you and me, their immediate response was to look for a reason. They needed a sensible explanation for the tragedy they were witnessing.
Initially, the natives concluded Paul must have been “a murdered, who, though he had escaped the sea, justice would not allow to live.” If they could cast Paul as being worthy of judgment, the tragedy wouldn’t be seen as random and instead possess a rational purpose.
To do this, they assume the tragedy itself was an indication “divine justice” was finally catching up. Though Paul made it through the storm and shipwreck, the snake-bite was seen as definitive proof he was a bad person experiencing the righteous judgment of god!
In a philosophical sense we’d say they believed, in this moment, Paul was experiencing a form of Karmic Justice. Note: Karma states that “actions bring upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in one's future incarnation.” In other words, tragedy can be seen as the just result of our past, evil deeds finally calling us to account!
In our culture, this belief in karma is fundamental to our rationalizing of human tragedy. We have no problems seeing Gaddafi or Saddam meet their brutal ends because what comes around goes around! They had it coming! In Paul’s case, the snake bite and his soon-to-be painful death were simply justice for his prior misdeeds.
And yet, what made this whole situation confusing for those who witnessed it was that Paul didn’t fall down dead and seemingly pays little mind to the viper “hanging from his hand” simply choosing to “shake off the creature into the fire” thereby “suffering no harm.”
Because this surprising development challenged their preconceived notions about Paul and since they were still in need of an explanation for what they were witnessing, Luke tells us the natives “changed their minds” about his guilt believing he must have been “a god.”
The interesting, and in many ways ironic, thing about their reaction is that they were right about Paul’s guilt but wrong about God’s judgment. The truth is that Paul had been a murder! Karmic Justice absolutely required he pay for these transgressions.
However, what they didn’t understand was that the justice of God towards Paul’s murderous sins had already been satisfied on the cross of Calvary! Jesus had already experienced the real snake bite on Paul’s behalf and died in his place as a result of the deadly venom. Divine justice had already been satisfied! Paul’s debt had been paid meaning the tragedy they had just witnessed was simply the natural sting of life and not the judgment of God!
What I find to be powerful about this story is that the way Paul handled being snake-bitten (how he handled tragedy) demonstrated a divine power unnatural to mortal man these natives could tangibly witness for themselves! While Paul was clearly no god, it was true that he “suffered no harm” in the midst of this tragedy, because the snake’s venom had no power as a direct result of a permanent work God had performed in his life!
Please keep in mind… The world watches with greater attention when the followers of Jesus suffer harm because people want to see how we’ll react. The truth is that our reactions, when faced with personal tragedy (a plight no man is ever immune from), are the quickest most profound way we can differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world.
It’s when we react to the snake-bite of life in the same manner as Paul that the world gets a glimpse of something otherworldly… They receive a peek into the divine… They witness the light of God shining brightly beneath the veil of our human flesh and weakness.
A few years ago I saw an incredible example of this play out on my TV screen… On the evening of June 17, 2015, a young, disturbed man by the name of Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., and after attending the service for about an hour proceeded to open fire killing nine innocent people. It was a horrifying crime!
Two days after his arrest, on June 19, Dylan appeared in court via video for his arrangement where some of the victim’s families were allowed to address the accused. I happened to watch part of what took place as part of the FoxNews show The Five… Play the Video.
While the words of these dear folks are powerful and their demonstration of forgiveness and witness for Jesus deeply moving, it was the reaction of one of the panelists on The Five that really caught my attention. Though Greg Gutfeld was raised a Catholic, today he is an outspoken atheist. I want to play for you his reaction to this video.
Why does God willingly allow tragedy to befall good people… His people? Why did God allow Dylan Roof to brutally execute nine of our brothers and sisters? While I can’t honestly stand here and give you a definitive and/or satisfying answer I can say confidently that…
First, the men and women who lost their lives that evening were loved by God and upon their physical deaths instantly entered the glories of heaven hearing from their Savior “well done good and faithful servant!” Sure, they experienced what we might call a tragic end to their earthly lives, but I can promise you they awoke to a great reward with zero regrets! In the end, the venom of that Great Serpent of Old proved powerless over their destinies as Jesus had already satisfied the righteous judgment for their sin.
The second thing I can say with certainty… Though it’s the right thing that we mourn the loss of those families, it became obvious the way the good and Godly people of that church handled this incredible tragedy gloriously demonstrated the supernatural power of God to a dark world without answers.
You see… The way that church community demonstrated forgiveness and love in the midst of unspeakable pain and suffering gave our society a genuine glimpse of the Jesus we know and follow! Because their public reaction was not normal (vindictiveness towards the accused) many people have been forced to consider… How!?
Understand… Since our lives have been transformed by Jesus and we’ve been given the promise of eternity our perspective on the human experience should be different. Sure, while Jesus never promised His followers would be immune from the snake-bite of this life, He has promised these snakes would no longer have any venom. For the believer, tragedy really is not all that tragic because, in the end, like Paul, we too will “suffered no harm!”
As Paul could glorious writes, in 1 Corinthians 15:55-58, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
Acts 28:7-10, “In that region there was an estate of the leading citizen of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and entertained us courteously for three days. And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him.
So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed. They also honored us in many ways; and when we departed, they provided such things as were necessary.”
Could you find a better example of hindsight being 20/20? The storm now makes sense… It was used by God to bring Paul 500 miles off course to the island of Malta. The shipwreck now makes sense… Without provisions, they would need the hospitality and care of these natives. Even the snake bite now makes sense… It was used by God to demonstrate His power working in and through the life of Paul which created his encounter with Publius!
Not only are we told that as a result of Paul’s ministry “the father of Publius” received healing but Luke says “the rest of those on the island came and were healed.” A revival happens on Malta as a direct result of Paul’s faithfulness, obedience, and suffering!
With regards to human suffering, there are really only two options: Either, God is not in control — you are suffering something random — meaning there isn’t a purpose or point behind it all. OR, God is in control — your suffering is not random and is allowed — meaning there is a purpose and a point behind it all. There really isn’t another option!
If you find yourself suffering a tragedy or experiencing a life storm, please consider… How did Paul get an audience with Publius? He had to first endure a storm that brought him to the island, survive a shipwreck that got him on shore, then live through a snake-bite so that word could spread about a man in whom the power of God dwelt!
One final point that needs to be made about this story… If in the grand scheme of things, this storm presents an allegory for life (that all men share the same journey through this storm), then there is an interesting picture we can’t overlook… As Acts 27 ends, we have a group of men (with nothing in common but the storm they all shared) at the mercy of events outside of their control; and yet, in the midst of this storm, when all hope was seemingly lost, God led them to this little island called “Malta.”
What makes this so fascinating as far as the allegory is concerned is that the word “Malta” literally means “refuge!” To me the imagery is amazing! In the midst of their storm, God was actively providing them (shipmen, soldiers, and prisoners alike) a place of refuge! Really… Can you think of a better picture for what the church (specifically Calvary316) is called to provide a world full of people suffering through their own storms?
Sure… While the fundamental role of a church is to equip believers to fulfill their ministry and calling by teaching God’s Word and provide a place for Christian community, I do believe (as presented in this incredible picture) the church has also been commissioned by God to be a place where people can take refuge in the midst of their storms!
I don’t know about you but I want Calvary316 to be such a place! I want our church to be a refuge where people can come in from their storm, be ministered to, filled anew with the Spirit, and encounter Jesus. I want our church to be a safe place (a sanctuary) where people from all walks of life can find a temporary reprieve from their storm.
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